Chicken Little invades Congress

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The sky is falling, said Chicken Little, and so say the health reform critics in the Senate. They are fearmongering relentlessly to kill health care reform. The health insurance conglomerates feeding them their lines are cackling with glee offstage. Listening to this poultry farm, day after day, is galling. The same conservatives who spent years bashing Medicare spending are now all but sobbing at the podium as they "defend" Medicare. 

Senate Republicans are honing a batch of deceptive, poll-driven sound bites  to drive the fear of seniors, stressed-out families and worried workers. Their hours of fake-outrage speechifying are also a tactical delay meant to kill any chance at a vote. Later, they’ll use the same sound bites on the campaign trail. Too bad truth can’t be reduced to angry snippets.

Here are the top Chicken Little messages, along with a truth that, as usual, is more than a sound bite.

Medicare benefits will be cut, up to 64%!!!

The longer truth: No regular Medicare benefits would be cut, and some would be strengthened. The health reform bills would reduce overpayments of more than $1,000 per beneficiary to private, for-profit Medicare Advantage plans (which sometimes offer extras like gym memberships or eyeglasses). The overpayments, gained through relentless insurance industry lobbying in Congress, threaten the health of overall Medicare, and are paid for by people in regular Medicare, who are charged about $90 a year extra on their physician-care "part B" payments–money that goes directly to Aetna, United Health Group, Kaiser and others that market, and profit from, the Medicare Advantage plans.

Under the reform bill, the overpayments would be reduced, though not eliminated. It would be up to the insurance companies whether to reduce the extra benefits, or trim their own costs, profits and up to $24 million CEO pay to retain the benefits.

None of the regular guaranteed benefits of Medicare could be cut, much less by "64%"–a figure proclaimed out of thin air by Sen. Grassley in an obvious attempt to make seniors think their basic benefits are at risk. In fact, the Senate bill greatly strengthens preventive care benefits in traditional Medicare.

A half-trillion robbed from Medicare for a huge federal entitlement!!! (Related: Hospitals and doctors will refuse to treat Medicare patients!!!)

The longer truth: The money saved from cutting fraud and abuse, reducing the Medicare Advantage overpayment, and reducing the growth of hospital costs would be largely or entirely used to shore up Medicare’s financing, at least delaying the programs’s risks of insolvency. Hospitals and other medical groups have agreed that the cuts would be offset by more revenue when millions more people are insured, and the American Hospital Association has said loudly and clearly that its members would not, ever, turn away Medicare patients. 

Having more non-seniors insured offers a major indirect benefit even to Medicare patients, because hospital resources are not drained off to pay for treatment of the uninsured, often in costly emergency rooms.

Health reform is a job killer!!!

Longer truth: This one is hard to follow–usually somehow related to rural hospitals laying off staff if any of their federal payments are cut. But it’s an utter lie. There isn’t a shred of doubt that health reform would create good jobs– not just doctor and registered nurse jobs, but for medical assistants, technicians, home health aides–real jobs that pay more than minimum wage and often come with benefits.

Government would take over control of your health care!!! (Related: Federal bureaucrats will deny and delay your care!!!)

Longer truth: The current bills are about as privatized as a reform could be, with government’s role mainly as a provider of subsidies for those who cannot afford private insurance, and guarantor that insurance benefits are worth the paper they’re written on. In polls over many years, people are happier with (government-run) Medicare than they were with private health insurance, so in many ways it’s too bad that government presence is as small as it is.

As for federal bureaucrats controlling care, government would indeed set minimums on the care that must be provided in most plans, as well as study what is most effective in treating chronic disease. Unfortunately, private insurance companies will still be hunting every loophole, as they already do, to limit your care and increase shareholder profits. Ask your doctor how he or she feels about the endless hours spent fighting insurance companies to care for you.

America can’t afford this huge entitlement program!!! (Implication: It’s just like welfare!!!) 

Longer truth: America can’t afford not to fix its health care system, which is sucking up an ever-larger share of the national output, while caring for ever-fewer people. The costs are bankrupting families and businesses alike. Insurance companies can capriciously deny to insure any applicant, and cancel their insurance if policyholders get sick. While the health reform bills in Congress are weaker than they could be–a failed attempt to respond to the insurer-backed critics–they top the worst abuses and would insure more than half of the 48 million uninsured Americans.

While no one can guarantee the future, the conservative Congressional Budget Office finds that the reforms would not increase federal indebtedness, and would slightly decrease it. The reforms would certainly spur new economic activity.

The aim of the sound-bite brigades is to kill health reform, since they offer no alternative that would increase the number of people with health care. They clearly hope to delay action long enough to build generalized fear of loss, and loathing of government. 

A similar assault met Franklin D. Roosevelt’s finally successful effort to establish the Social Security program. Corporations fought back by putting scary warnings about "new taxes" in employees’ pay envelopes and railing against big government. Roosevelt was bouyed, however, by persistent public support for the retirement program for the elderly. 

This time around, the opponents’ scientifically crafted sound bites are sharper and less bound by truth. They deliberately use words that would make seniors think all of their Medicare benefits are at risk. What we have to hope is that Americans are also sharper at seeing through smear and fear, and willing to respond to those who spread the ugly sound bites.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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